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Lennon’s new story collection, “Let Me Think,” is like a fistful of those jigsaw puzzle pieces strewn across the floor. A few fizzle before they’ve begun, but at its strongest, the book is an indelible assortment of characters in flux, fighting, flailing, failing to communicate, and eating or not eating (or hate-eating) pie. Each of the 71 stories, some just a sentence or paragraph long, tackles the small and large disappointments, existential horrors and mundane joys of modern life.
A husband and wife reflect on the parts of themselves that are free or trapped depending on the opening and closing of their house’s many doors. A child’s fear looms large and grows unchecked, threatening calamity. Titles appear more than once as variations on a theme, as in Helen Phillips’s collection “And Yet They Were Happy.” Brief bursts of marriage — “Marriage (Love),” “Marriage (Fault)” and my favorite, “Marriage (Marriage)” — read as bright two-minute plays, brimming with glee and acid and rage. I like to imagine this collection as the prequel to “Subdivision,” a template for the life the nameless narrator cannot seem to recall. The shortest piece, “Death (After),” is a dose of morbid mirth: “I believe in the afterlife in much the same way I believe in the after-party: It may exist, but I’m not invited, and so will never find out.”
The “collective municipal memory” in the story “SuperAmerica” is not so distant from the Subdivision’s collective municipal amnesia. (The occasional crow pecks at the margins of these pages too.) “The Cottage on the Hill,” an operatic turn, epic in scope, spans four sections of the book and across a character’s lifetime. Richard visits the same cottage on different weekends years apart, finding himself and the landscape always irrevocably altered. Certain mysteries alight, and fade. “He does not expect any kind of epiphany,” Lennon writes, “he wants only to see.”
To see and be seen, to comprehend, to connect the dots. In the title story, a father implores his daughter to let him think, to give him a moment’s solitude, or just a moment for imagination. The plea appears throughout the collection, as much a prayer as an invocation: “Let me think,” Lennon’s version of “Let there be light.” In one of the most daring stories, “The Loop,” a woman named Bev relives the same day of furniture deliveries for an eternity, watching herself turn into the vortex of a cul-de-sac on repeat: “The first dozen cycles, the first hundred, she screamed silently at First Bev to wait, just wait, let me think, let me see.”
Toward the middle of the collection, “The Museum of Near Misses” presents an alternate reality in which Donald Trump was never elected president. His portrait hangs in the titular museum, a curiosity at best, but maybe also a warning, our own personal bakemono. At long last, the narrator crashes through the exhibit and into our timeline; he is cleareyed, awake, rejecting “a life of self-deception … dictated not by reality but by the seductive and shapely contours of fiction.” The puzzle and the loop and the riddle can only last for so long. Eventually, we get an invitation to the after-party. “The real world beckoned,” he thinks, and at last, life is upon him.